'I never dreamed this day would come'

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Monday, January 10, 2011; A12

IN KWORIJIK BUNGO, SUDAN The villagers of this southern hamlet remember rapes, beatings and killings by the Arab soldiers of the north Sudanese army who set up a military camp here two decades ago. As war broke out, the soldiers torched their huts. The entire village of 200 vanished, its surviving residents fleeing to other parts of Sudan.

But since 2005, when a peace accord was signed to end the long civil war, the villagers of Kworijik Bungo have been trickling back and rebuilding their lives. On Sunday, they voted in a historic referendum on whether to secede from the north, on the very spot where they were persecuted.

Everyone interviewed said they voted for independence. Many saw their vote as a vindication of their suffering, a victory in a part of the world where victories are few.

"I never dreamed this day would come," Jackson Modi Loku, a frail, stooped 65-year-old, said in an emotional, cracking voice after he had voted.

Across this Texas-sized region, southern Sudanese poured into polling stations, patiently casting votes for what many expect will be the creation of the world's newest country. The process was so orderly and organized that American, European and African observers immediately put out statements applauding it, even though it is a week-long exercise in democracy. The Obama administration had pushed hard for a timely referendum.

Amid snaking lines of thousands, there was singing, dancing and praying. There were tears, hugs and kisses. People draped themselves in the south Sudanese flag - green, red, and black with a yellow star. They blew whistles and banged drums. There was an undeniable sense that this vote was a send-off to Sudan's brutally divisive past and a herald of a promising new future. It was a day that many observers said made not just south Sudan, but also an entire continent, proud.

"Fifty-five years of people fighting and dying for their freedom is culminating today," said John Prendergast, a Sudan activist who was visiting a polling center in the southern capital, Juba. "It is a dramatic representation of Africa coming together . . . the people and their voices get to determine the future of a region. That doesn't happen very often in history."

There are still key issues to resolve, including contentious border areas, citizenship rights and how to share revenues from Sudan's vast oil reserves, most of which are in the south. But if the referendum passes, as expected, south Sudan is scheduled to declare independence in July.

'Like a baptism'

In Kworijik Bungo, about 30 miles south of Juba, there was a feeling that a new era of freedom had arrived. Many had wanted a separate nation well before Sudan became independent in 1956 from British rule. The village is a microcosm of southern Sudan, as much a mirror of this region's turbulent history as a harbinger of the challenges a new nation, should it emerge, will face.

"Today is like a baptism for our new country," declared John Pitia, 31, as he ate a traditional meal of beans and sorghum with his wife, Mary, and four children outside their thatched mud hut. "We want to have our own country and leave the Arabs."

He can't forget his childhood. The Arab soldiers were camped less than a hundred yards away. They treated his family as second-class citizens, he said. They beat villagers at will, and killed them if they suspected them of being spies for the rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement.

"They raped our women," said Pitia, the bitterness evident in his voice.

Flora Kaji knows. Her 15- and 16-year-old neighbors, she said, were raped. At the time, she was 11. "I was too young to be raped, but they still beat me," said Kaji, now 30. "I was one of their victims."

Loku's 8-year-old daughter died in a hail of bullets in 1985, when Arab soldiers targeted a car filled with civilians, he said. Two years later, he tried to escape the village, but some soldiers stopped him. As a punishment, they put a knife to his right ear to cut it off, he said. An older commander saved him and ordered the soldiers to target young men, not the old ones.

Such stories are not unusual. The northern government's forces and its proxy militias have long been known to commit atrocities, including razing villages, killing civilians and kidnapping southern children and selling them to slave traders. Many of the tactics used in the south would later be used in the western region of Darfur.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, all the residents of Kworijik Bungo had fled. The Arab soldiers burned their huts. The villagers joined the more than 4 million displaced Sudanese who ended up in camps across the nation's bleak, sun-scorched terrain.

Sarah Juan, 35, returned to the village last year. She had been a refugee in Uganda since 1985. On Sunday, she was the last person to vote at the polling station, a few yards from a date tree planted by the Arab soldiers.

The ballot had a drawing of two clasped hands to indicate unity. A single open hand represented independence. An estimated 8 percent of adults in southern Sudan are illiterate.

Juan chose independence.

"I already feel free of my problems," she said with a smile.

No clinics, few teachers

But on the ground next to Loku was a stark example of one of the biggest challenges facing southern Sudan: His 10-year-old grandson, Wani.

The naked boy was covered in dirt, writhing on the ground, partially paralyzed. He suffers from polio, a disease that has all but disappeared in the West. There are no hospitals or clinics nearby.

"He is sick," was all his grandfather could say. "No one is here to help."

Pitia's children, like many in the village, do not attend school. Most teachers have left the local school because they have not been paid, his wife said.

"Poverty is a huge problem in this area. It is because of the oppression we faced under the Arabs," she said. "Now, we are praying that there will be change, so that the government will bring more teachers."

Everyone in the village has expectations.

"I want to start my own business," Loku said. "Our life is going to change. We will dance."

"I hope I can open a roadside stall," Pitia said.

But they also have fears. Many villagers questioned the public pledge made by the north's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, to recognize the south if it becomes a new nation. "We don't trust the Arabs," Pitia said.

"There will be no co-existence," Kaji predicted. "They mistreated the southerners. We cannot deal with them again."

For now, the villagers are expecting a new wave of arrivals from Khartoum. They include Loku's nine other grandchildren.

"They are finally coming home," he said.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company